Education is the door to a better future for all of us. Quality K-12 schooling and affordable post-secondary education are necessary to make sure that all Pennsylvanians can chase the American Dream, working families are economically secure, and our state economy thrives for years to come. But for years our state government has not done enough to provide quality educational opportunities for Pennsylvanians and we now stand at a crisis point. The time has come for the state of Pennsylvania to fund our K-12 schools adequately and more equally, invest in technical schools like Lancaster’s Thaddeus Stevens School of Technology, and bring down the cost of higher education for Pennsylvanians.
The first step is to recognize that our state’s support for post-secondary is anemic and that we can do better.
The second step is to send people like me to Harrisburg to reverse the cuts to higher education, restore our system of higher education to health, and expand our community college system. If education is the door to a better future, let’s make sure the door is wide open in Pennsylvania.
According to a well-known report in the Washington Post, Pennsylvania’s K-12 schools are the most unequally funded in the country. And it is no great mystery why. Despite the fact that state spending on education has increased incrementally in the last few state budgets, our state government is still not funding education adequately. Moreover, the bulk of state funding is not going through the Fair Funding Formula that lawmakers put in place in 2016 to fund PA's schools equitably according to the needs of each district. The result is that most of the cost of maintaining our public school system has fallen to local property owners and where local property owners cannot – or are unwilling -- to foot the bill, Pennsylvania’s students and teachers go without.
With an election coming, Pennsylvania’s lawmakers are touting as a great success the $100 million increase in basic education funding that they allowed in the 2018-19 budget. But what they fail to point out is that the state’s contribution to school funding still falls FAR SHORT of what it needs to be -- and what it used to be.
In the early 1970s, state dollars accounted for 50% of total K-12 education funding alongside federal and local sources of funding. Now, the state’s contribution covers only 33% of total K-12 spending – fourteen points below the current national average.
Pennsylvania is 46th out of 50 when it comes to per capita state support for K-12 education.
A circle of conservative Republicans in the General Assembly pride themselves on depressing state support for K-12 education funding. They claim to be “taming unnecessary spending,” but they are just shortchanging Pennsylvania’s students and shifting the tax burden onto property owners. At this point local property taxes make up the bulk – 56%! – of total education funding in Pennsylvania and our state’s property taxes have risen to be the 6th highest in the country on average. No wonder our seniors feel squeezed by property taxes! Our state needs to increase K-12 education spending to meet the needs of our students. Since the state sets high standards for K-12 education, it needs to do more to fund our schools so that local property taxes can recede.
Here in the 97th PA House District we face another problem relating to K-12 education. Our population of school-aged children is growing and yet our lawmakers are not making use of the Fair Funding Formula that would send more state support to school districts, such as our own, in which the student body is growing. For when the General Assembly passed the Fair Funding Formula in 2016 they also put a “Hold Harmless” provision in place such that only INCREASES in education spending pass through the formula. And since members of the General Assembly have severely limited funding increases for years, the Fair Funding Formula is HARDLY BEING USED. Almost 92% of state dollars are NOT going through the Fair Funding Formula that lawmakers themselves designed to fund K-12 education in Pennsylvania fairly.
I find our state legislature’s approach to K-12 education frustrating and counter-productive. The time has come to increase our state’s contribution to K-12 education. The 2018-19 budget passed by the General Assembly this summer returns K-12 education funding to what it was prior to the deep 2011 cuts. Lawmakers are celebrating this fact, but it is not nearly enough given the rate of inflation, our increasing population, the needs of our students, and the state’s own increased educational standards.
If we want to make sure that Pennsylvania’s children go to quality schools regardless of their zip code, the state needs to increase K-12 funding and run more of the present funding through the Fair Funding Formula. If we cannot put all funds through the Fair Funding Formula at once, then we should phase in the changes over a span of a few years rather than the more than 30 years our lawmakers are now estimating it will take to fund schools equitably with Hold Harmless in place. We need legislation to speed up how much money goes through the formula while still allowing school districts time to see and adjust to the changes. Increasing state support for K-12 education would also provide crucial relief to those Pennsylvanians who have been faced with spiking property taxes over the last decade. Let’s fix K-12 education now for all of our sakes.
Post-secondary education is the key to a good-paying job for many Pennsylvanians. But that training is also necessary to stimulate our economy and keep communities healthy and growing across our large and diverse state. We cannot expect our economy to grow steadily, nor can we expect young Pennsylvanians to remain in our state, if it does not provide quality and affordable opportunities for people looking for education after high school.
Unfortunately, our General Assembly has left adults seeking post-secondary schooling out to dry. As they have with K-12 education, state lawmakers have failed to invest adequately in our state- and state-affiliated schools and they have not done enough to grow our technical- and two-year colleges so that they can train the professionals and tradespeople who are in such large demand in places like Lancaster County.
The General Assembly pulled the brake years ago on post-secondary education funding. Adjusted for inflation, Pennsylvania has cut state spending on higher education by a third since 2008. At present, we are 47th in the country in per capita state support for higher education.
Naturally, such deep cuts are hurting Pennsylvanians. Tuition has shot up.
Tuition at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (aka PASSHE) schools, for example, has increased 40% since 2008! Many low- and middle-income Pennsylvanians are being priced out of post-secondary education as a consequence. Pennsylvania accordingly ranks 40th in the country in the percentage of adults aged 25-64 with education beyond high school. And Pennsylvanians have the highest student debt on average after leaving school ($36, 193), second only to Connecticut.
US News and World Report accordingly ranks Pennsylvania 50th when it comes to higher education. US News and World Report makes this judgment by looking at what percentage of adults in a state hold a degree (associates or higher), the cost of education, and the average student loan debt that graduates owe when they leave school. This is not where we want our state to be. This is not who Pennsylvanians are.
What is the solution? We need to invest more in technical schools such as the excellent Thaddeus Stevens School of Technology in Lancaster so that Pennsylvanians can get an affordable education and find their way to a well-paying job that will help propel our economy forward. We need to expand our community college system as well and we need to increase appropriations to the PASSHE system and the state-affiliated schools.
In short, we need to follow the example of enterprising western states like Wyoming and North Dakota by divorcing ourselves from the thought that we can just keep cutting back investment in higher education, lowering our expectations, and telling ourselves that post-secondary education is too expensive and that most people don’t want it anyway.
We cannot continue to shrink the life-chances of Pennsylvanians by making post-secondary education ever more expensive. We cannot continue to await the economic boom in our state that will not happen, in the first place, without a highly-educated workforce.
We have to build the future and that means a serious investment now to help Pennsylvanians pay for post-secondary education. Numerous studies have been conducted that show how we could best invest in diverse post-secondary education opportunities for Pennsylvanians and turn things around.
What do we do?
The first step is to recognize that our state’s support for post-secondary is anemic and we can do better.
The second step is to send people like me to Harrisburg to reverse the cuts to higher education, restore our system of higher education to health, and expand our community college system. Education is the door to a better future. Let’s make sure the door is wide open in Pennsylvania.